This is how good it is to be Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.
He can start his 2018 season off with a barn full of promising 3-year-old runners, including one of the clubhouse leaders on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. He can lose that Grade 1-winning colt for the entirely of the Triple Crown campaign due to a hind leg injury only to have his so-called “backup” provide the salve of all salves by whipping his classmates en route to becoming just the 13th horse to sweep the American classics.
He can wistfully watch as that newly-minted racing demigod is retired and whisked off to the breeding shed, his career over after just six brilliant starts. He can then turn back to his original leading sophomore hopeful and have him pick up his career in even better fashion than he left it off.
Before Justify became the classic-conquering wunderkind he will be remembered as, McKinzie was the colt his trainer believed his peers would have to go through if they wanted to claim divisional supremacy.
In his first start since being sidelined in late March, the Street Sense colt provided a reminder as to why he began the year as Baffert's No. 1 pick when he captured the Grade 1, $1 million Pennsylvania Derby by 1 ¾ lengths over Axelrod at Parx Racing on Sept. 22.
In giving Baffert his second straight Pennsylvania Derby win and third triumph in the race in the last five years, McKinzie showcased the ability that will always prompt his connections to wonder what might have been had a physical setback not prevented him from ever facing his Triple Crown-winning stablemate. His only loss from five career starts came in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes on March 10 at Santa Anita Park, a race that saw him cross the finish line first in front of multiple Grade 1 winner Bolt d'Oro only to be disqualified to second when those two made contact in the stretch.
And on a day where his Grade 1-winning stablemate Collected floundered on the Parx main track in his own return off a layoff, McKinzie went about his business in routine fashion — prompting longshot pacesetter Trigger Warning through the opening half-mile in :48.91 before taking command for good at the head of the lane of the 1 1/8-mile race.
“If anything can be taken away from sting a Triple Crown horse retiring it's a horse like this,” said McKinzie's jockey Mike Smith, who also was the regular rider for Justify. “He is an incredible horse. Really, really proud of him. Bob [Baffert] had him ready. To come off the bench at a mile and an eighth, Bob is just a tremendous trainer to get him ready. I felt very confident that I could be aggressive early and move a little early because I knew Bob had him ready.”
Baffert's longstanding belief in McKinzie's ability is most evident by the moniker the bay colt carries. Named for Baffert's longtime friend and Los Alamitos Race Course executive Brad McKinzie, who died from renal carcinoma last Aug. 6 at the age of 62, the trainer wasn't going to let just any member of his barn carry the weight of someone who meant the world to him.
Owned by Mike Pegram, Karl Watson, and Paul Weitman, McKinzie lived up to his billing from his first moment in the starting gate. He broke his maiden at first asking at Santa Anita Park last Oct. 28, graduating to top-level company next time out in the Dec. 9 Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity.
That race saw McKinzie benefit from his stablemate Solomini's misfortune as that one was disqualified for interference, allowing McKinzie to get elevated to the victory. When he made his seasonal bow in the Jan. 6 Sham Stakes, McKinzie needed no assistance en route to a 3 ½-length win.
When he returned to the worktab in early August following his injury, McKinzie came back into hand in as good a fashion as Baffert could have wished for. The tactical ability that had always allowed Smith to place him where he pleased was put to the test immediately out of post-position 8 on Saturday as his pilot hustled him forward and let him sit third in an outside path around the first turn as 81-1 shot Trigger Warning led the opening quarter-mile in :23.81.
McKinzie advanced down the backstretch past Bravazo to his inside and put himself eyeball to eyeball with Trigger Warning through the half-mile mark. Those top two continued to run side by side around the far turn before McKinzie turned on his next gear and opened up by a length as Axelrod tried to make a run at him.
Despite some tail swishing and gawking in the lane, McKinzie never let the drama build beyond that as he covered the 1 1/8 miles in 1:52.05 to reward those who sent him off as the 2-1 favorite in the nine-horse field.
“He is still learning as well,” said Smith, who is right with Baffert in living the ultra good life, having won the Grade 1 Cotillion Stakes earlier on the card aboard Midnight Bisou via disqualification. “Although he has raced, he had a lot of time off he got to looking around, looking at the tracks and ... I had a really good hold of him today. I didn't really want to bother anyone.
“The last time I rode him we got disqualified of course, I picked his head up and when I asked him to finish he really got underneath me and really galloped out really well.”
Axelrod was 7 1/2 lengths clear of Trigger Warning for second. Hofburg, the second betting choice, never threatened and finished fourth with Core Beliefs fifth.
Midnight Bisou Wins Cotillion Via Disqualification of Monomoy Girl
Midnight Bisou and Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith used every tactic to try and beat Monomoy Girl in the $1 million, Grade 1 Cotillion Stakes at Parx Racing on Sept. 22. In the end, that win came via an objection.
Monomoy Girl had a clear lead coming off the turn in the 1 1/16-mile race, after taking a pace-stalking rail trip under regular rider Florent Geroux in pursuit of her fifth straight Grade 1 win this season. The Tapizar filly bore out heading into the lane and left a wide path inside, which Smith targeted with Midnight Bisou after running outside early — but in the next few strides, Monomoy Girl bore back in.
“I hate to see it end in controversy like that, but my mare deserves a fair chance and I don’t think she got one,” Smith said. “I never got a straight run and we got beat only by a head.”
Smith switched Midnight Bisou outside, but a review of the head-on showed Monomoy Girl bearing out again, sending her rival farther out to the center of the track. Smith’s objection was allowed and Monomoy Girl was disqualified and placed second, her first loss in six starts for trainer Brad Cox in 2018.
“I wasn’t on her heels yet, and was able to alter the course,” Smith said of the first incident. “The second time she came out I was on her heels, and if I go in, there’s a 90-percent chance I’m going to hit her and fall, so I had to keep going out and we just kept going out. If she only came in the first time, she probably wouldn’t have gotten disqualified, but there were two different incidents. She’ll do that, that mare. She’ll lean into one. She’s a fighter, but I was proud of my mare. Even after everything, she was surging at the end.”
Wonder Gadot completed the trifecta.
Midnight Bisou, who put together an impressive win streak earlier in the season when she won the Grade 2 Santa Ynez Stakes, Grade 3 Santa Ysabel Stakes, and Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks, tangled with Monomoy Girl and emerged on the losing end in two prior races. She was third behind the brawny chestnut and Wonder Gadot in the May 4 Longines Kentucky Oaks and was second by three lengths to Monomoy Girl on July 22 in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks, her first start for Steve Asmussen after being shifted from the California stable of Bill Spawr.
“We thought she came in here really fresh and on her game,” assistant trainer Scott Blasi said. “It’s tough to win like this, lose like that. We’ve all been there. That being said, she deserved to win the race.”—Claire Crosby